Angela Chen, BCom ’13
Entrepreneur in Residence, Antler
Most people are drawn to study commerce as a result of their individual goals and desires to succeed financially or entrepreneurially. Angela Chen entered Rotman Commerce with a slightly different mindset than many of her peers.
Angela’s parents are both entrepreneurs, so it’s possible that her drive and analytical focus is a familial trait. However, she says she had been thinking about economics- in an abstract way- from a very early age. While she was a child in China, Angela saw how the massive growth in the country came to affect its citizenry and, years later, this led her to think about the wide impact that business can have.
“I think I was just interested in economic development in general,” she says. “Before we moved to Vancouver, we were living Shenzhen, China, in the nineties, which was a real time of growth there. You could really see projects and buildings happen right before your eyes, where there was nothing before. You could see that people were getting wealthier.”
While she was aware of her early interest in economics, Angela also felt the pull of a more altruistic calling. She initially thought to study French literature, which she says seemed like “a noble pursuit of knowledge”. She held these twin interests up until she attended a summer program for high school seniors in New York, which gave her exposure to the wider business world through networking and site visits and ultimately helped her decide to focus on commerce for her post-secondary education.
Angela began her undergraduate journey around the time of the last financial crisis, which perhaps served to advance her consideration of impactful work. “At the time, there was a student group [now known as the Rotman Commerce Innovation Group] that was focused on community development and volunteering,” she says. “The group was focused initially on community projects like working with Habitat for Humanity, or local food banks. I got involved with them during my first year. As things were changing in the market, we started to have more conversations about the ethics of finance and what level of social responsibility businesses, and those working in them have to society. Other similar philosophical questions came up in the aftermath of the financial crisis, all of which were very much aligned with what I was already interested in.”
This extra-curricular involvement, combined with some timely learnings, led Angela to consider work in the impact space. “One of the Rotman professors, who I’m still in touch with, told me about micro-finance,” she recalls, reflecting on her early years as a student at Rotman Commerce. “And I was initially skeptical about it because the loans were non-collateralized and the repayment rates were so high. But because I was so curious, I actually ended up going to Grameen [Bangladesh] to do an internship. There were students there from all over the world, and there were a couple of Americans working at the Yunus Centre who recommended that I stay a bit longer, become more embedded in the work. It wasn’t right for me at the time, since I had a full-time offer here in Toronto, but at the same time I realized that you don’t need to move to Bangladesh to help somebody. There’s so much that can be done in your own backyard.”
This newfound openness, combined with her interest in doing meaningful work, helped her understand that her future career path might lie outside of the traditional “finance or management” dichotomy. “Right now people are sort of looking at [their careers] in two-dimensional terms,” she explains, delineating the thought process that led her to work in the impact investing space. “Most people focus on the types of organizations they want to work for, or the functional roles within those organizations they want to work in. For me, what’s also important is a third dimension which asks the questions of, ‘what is the outcome you want to achieve through the work?’ and ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’”
Angela’s career has seen her gain diverse work experience, with stints in the non-profit world as well as in investment management. One of her most impactful positions was working for World Wildlife Fund, where she worked on portfolio development of investable conservation projects. She is now an Associate at Impact Capitalyst, an advisory firm that uses capital markets vehicles, strategies and instruments to enable sustainable production of soft commodities across the globe. A former colleague founded the firm and Angela was brought on as a part of the founding team. She says she appreciates the system-focus of projects. “For instance, one analytical tool I helped to develop factors in the risk of deforestation into the valuation of a Brazilian beef company operating in the Amazon,” she says. “Another project which is funded by one of the largest US foundations in conservation, is around creating financial mechanisms to fund the transition of fisheries to sustainable operations .” As a Rotman Commerce grad with a passion for creating positive change in the broader world, Angela has certainly positioned herself to maximize that impact.
“There’s this quote from Aristotle that I always share with students ,” says Angela. “‘Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.’” Angela found it helpful to loosely break down the Aristotelian wisdom into three further questions as a framework for constant self-reflection: “What does the world need?”, “What does the world need from me?”, and “How might I deliver on what the world need from me?” The various answers that she discovered through this process have helped to guide her career goals.
Angela says that she still asks herself these types of questions, and as her experiences have evolved, so have her answers. “For me, ultimately the dream is still to be able to create impact through finance and business, but having now worked directly on creating impact for three years, I see different types of leverage points for change,” she explains. “More efforts need to be deployed in Asia, because the resource and environmental challenges associated with fast economic growth are sizable. So in the next five years, that’s where I really want to work.”
In April 2018, Angela accepted a fellowship with the firm she was with to develop a new investment theme around circular economy and waste management to prevent ocean plastics in Southeast Asia, and she’s excited to gain more firsthand knowledge. ”That’s why I’m going,” she says, “to apprentice with the problem.”
Update (April 2019): Since this article was published, Angela has taken a new position as Entrepreneur-in-Residence with Antler.